Seven international media freedom organisations are urging the 30 public bodies that have refused The Shift’s requests for public information to drop the appeals they have filed, which the groups have deemed “highly concerning”.
In a statement published on Monday, the organisations – the International Press Institute (IPI), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), OBC Transeuropa (OBCT), ARTICLE 19 and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation – urged the public entities to respect the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and the Data Protection Commissioner’s ruling.
They called for the government to drop the coordinated appeals and provide the documentation that The Shift had requested in a “timely fashion”.
“While the collection of documents by ministries may well be burdensome, this is not a sufficient reason to decline the release of public interest information,” the organisations said.
The concern follows unprecedented appeals by some 30 government ministries and entities against the order by the Data Protection Commissioner to disclose information on public expenditure requested by The Shift. The groups said that such an incident is “emblematic of challenges” that media outlets in Malta are facing when accessing public information through the FOI Act.
#Malta: Media are facing major obstructions in accessing public data through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Unprecedented appeals by 30 government bodies against FOIs filed by @TheShiftNews are emblematic of these challenges.
— IPI-The Global Network for Independent Journalism (@globalfreemedia) February 7, 2022
The appeals stem from FOI requests that The Shift’s editor, Caroline Muscat, sent to various public bodies which sought documents about possible contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Saviour Balzan and his commercial entities.
The information was in the public interest as it concerned the use of public money. However, those requests were denied by multiple entities, which argued the information requested did not exist in the form of standard documentation. An investigation by the Data Commissioner ruled the documentation does exist and must be provided.
The Shift has since launched a fundraiser to support its fight against the 30 appeals.
The press freedom groups noted that Balzan’s relations with the government are of “wider importance to press freedom in Malta”, noting that he is one of the seven members of the Committee of Experts which will oversee the implementation of recommendations resulting from the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“This case is about a simple principle that affects all media in Malta: the right to access publicly held information on how taxpayer money is used. This is a basic right that is essential for the functioning of democracy,” they said.
“It carries serious implications for transparency and media freedom and sets a precedent that damages the ability of all media in Malta to do their work,” they added.
The Shift’s experience is illustrative of a far wider problem regarding access to information in Malta, they argued, highlighting numerous situations hindering the provision of information, such as delays in responses, incomplete information, request extensions, discrimination and regular appeals to the Data Commissioner.
“Inundated with appeals, Malta’s under-resourced Data Commissioner lacks the capacity to take up every case,” they wrote.
“The result is that rather than fostering a culture of transparency, Malta’s current freedom of information legislation is regularly being abused to obstruct requests and obfuscate the disclosure of public information. Moving forward, it is increasingly clear that amendments to the existing 2008 law are needed.”
#Malta: Media face challenges in accessing public information through FOI Act. The unprecedented appeals by 30 government entities against a decision which ordered the disclosure of information on public spending requested by @TheShiftNews are emblematic.https://t.co/J49IS5ZEQE
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) February 7, 2022
Such revisions had already been called for by the Data Commissioner and the public inquiry board. Concerns were also raised by the Venice Commission and the Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The public entities appealing the Data Commissioner’s decision include the Gozo Ministry, Malta Enterprise, Identity Malta, Ministry for Social Accommodation, Malta Film Commission, the Planning Authority, and the Education Ministry, among others (see full list here). One by one, the entities filed virtually identical appeals pushing back on the Commissioner’s decision to grant the information in the public interest regarding the use of public funds.
Reiterating their support and assistance, the groups said that any changes in legislation will only be effective if supplemented by the development of a culture of transparency and accountability within the government.
The appeals have been registered as a press freedom violation on the European portal Mapping Media Freedom.